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Nice Work, If You Can Keep It

By Michael Nadeau

For the work-hungry independent professional, nothing is more satisfying than landing a big long-term client. It was certainly a big relief for me when, shortly after striking out on my own, I found a client willing to place me on retainer -- that is, pay my asking price for an extended period of time.

The first few weeks of the relationship were great. Work flowed to me smoothly and consistently; communication with the client was relatively good. Then, all of a sudden, everything stopped. No work; no phone calls returned; no email answered - for a couple of weeks. Did something go wrong? Were they unhappy with my work? I had no idea.

Finally, after working a few side channels, I learned the simple truth. The client was behind schedule and did not have work ready to send me. Since I was on a retainer, the client was still obligated to pay me for the time I had set aside for the work. The client also promised that the work would resume shortly. So, everything seemed cool, right? At first I thought so, but I just couldn't ignore the alarm bells set off by the lack of communication.

I had another concern in addition to the incommunicado client: While clients generally expect that consultants paid on retainer will sometimes be idle, the length of my idleness was excessive. With no work and no communication, I was out of sight and out of mind. That gave the client cause to reconsider how important I was to the project.

My fears were well-founded: the work never resumed. Instead, the company decided it would be more cost-effective to hire someone onto its staff to do the work I had been doing under contract. All I could do was to thank the client for the opportunity, send a final bill, and ponder what I could have done to keep the account.

I decided that I could have dealt with two key issues more effectively: the client's lack of responsiveness and the unpredictable workflow. The trick in both cases would have been to deal with the problems before they occurred.

Anticipate and Accommodate

Wiser, I now understand that there will be communications and workflow issues with all clients. It's important, therefore, to anticipate them during the contract-negotiation process and to deal with them in a pragmatic, tactful way. Here's my advice to any IP who expects to work for a client off-site:

Establish a key contact list

There might only be one person to deal with on a given project, but in most cases several people will be involved. Find out who is responsible for each aspect of the project at the client's end and get permission to contact them directly if the primary contact is unavailable.

Set times to touch base

Even if just for a five-minute phone call, make regular appointments to speak with your primary contact. Talk about schedules, the client's reaction to your work, workflow, or any other topic relevant to the project. You want to do this for two reasons: to keep the lines of communications open and to anticipate light and heavy work periods.

Create a backup plan

Discuss ways in which you can contribute to the client's project in the event of an extended slow period. In my case, content editing was the primary service I was delivering to my client. However, I could have performed other valuable tasks such as critiquing other content or building a reference database to avoid being idle. When work from a client slows down, the temptation is to kick back and enjoy the free time. If you want to hold on to the client, though, the better path is to send a steady flow of output to the client in order to justify the investment made in you. If the client doesn't want to establish a formal contingency plan, then you need to take the initiative to provide the client value, or at least keep up your visibility, during slow periods.

Plan to reassess the relationship on a regular basis. Projects change, sometimes to your detriment. If a project becomes less demanding of your time, that's the first clue to the client to let you go. You can cut your losses, however, if you acknowledge this possibility up front and show the client flexibility in accommodating the demands of the project. It is better to keep a client at fewer hours than to lose the account altogether. Remember, too, that reassessing a project doesn't necessarily mean a cut in your fee. It provides the opportunity to discuss new ways in which you can contribute, or to make the case for increasing the time you spend on the project.

Ask for a notice period for ending the relationship. In the event that you do lose the account, you want a grace period to find new clients before the revenue stream ends. I had such an agreement with my lost account, and it allowed me time to replace the revenue it generated. A month is a reasonable amount of time to request, but two weeks is adequate.

These ground rules won't always keep you from losing clients, but they should help you hold onto them longer. More important, by being proactive about issues like communication and workflow, you send the message that you are professional and committed to keeping your clients satisfied.

Michael Nadeau is an independent professional working in the Boston area. He's a web/print editorial consultant specializing in high-tech and business media. Write to us with your reaction to his piece, or if you'd like us to put you in touch with him.

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